After my grandmother's death, the family congealed in Virginia to settle the distribution my grandparents' belongings. Both of them were packrats of the first order, so there was quite a bit to sort through.
My grandfather served in the Army from the early '30s to the late '60s. He was an engineer. Through World War II, he served in a mostly African American unit. My understanding was that you had an entire company of African Americans structured as any other group would be, but then an all-white command structure would be attached on top. Consequently, you'd get black lieutenants and white lieutenants and, despite the fact that both were the same rank on paper, the white officer was higher ranking. I don't bring this up to discuss the morality of the racism inherent in such a system – my grandfather was a product of his times and, considering how proud he was to serve in semi-integrated unit when many took pains to avoid serving with blacks, I think the case can be made that my grandfather was, if no better than many men of his era, certainly no worse than the average man – but, instead, need to point the fact out to explain the Army's interest in my grandfather's belongings.
It turned out that my grandfather's War Era notebooks constitute one of the most significant first-hand records of the achievements of the African American soldiers/engineers. Apparently the records left behind from the soldiers themselves are spotty. Unlike more glamorous African American groups, like the Tuskegee Fliers, there was little interest in efforts of these engineers and the historical records were left to scatter. But there, sitting in an old metal desk – a discard from my grandfather's days as an attaché to NASA – was a nearly day-by-day account of the engineers and what they went through. It filled several hand-sized leather bound "journalist pads" and was supplemented by nearly 700 photographs. Most of these photographs were of empty roads. My grandfather was an engineer and he studied roadwork with a connoisseur's mixture of technical knowledge and sincere enthusiasm. About of a third of them were pictures of the black troops and their white officers at work and at rest. My grandfather never expressed an interest in photography as anything more than a blunt tool for quickly capturing visual data, yet his photos of human subjects are arresting.
The Army contacted us to ask about the notebooks when my grandfather died. That was years ago. My grandmother said the wanted to keep them. Her children, if they wished, could donate the to the Army Engineers archives after her death.
When her strength began to fade, the debate was picked up in earnest.
There were several people who wanted hold on to the journals. Initially, I was one of them. Though, as the debate went on, we came to feel that our grandfather wouldn't have wanted us to hold on to these if it meant that it might be denying the men in them the credit he often claimed they richly deserved. If these things constitute the richest story of their lives, then we didn’t think one family's claim on their grandfather should potentially deny hundreds of families of knowledge about their grandfather. We told the Army to take what they want.
They did leave something behind though. Apparently the Army was interested in the WWII years, but they left behind his post-War notebooks. The company didn't dissolve after the War. On their way from the European theater to the Pacific theater, the war ended and the engineers were re-routed to Korea where they were to assist with rebuilding efforts. That peacetime interlude between the engineer's European experiences and the nightmare they went through when they were caught in the Korean War was, apparently, of no real interest.
So, I've got it.
I've been transcribing it for his sons to read and, though I'm a bit late for Veteran's Day, I thought I'd share some it. I thought it was an interesting picture of an Army that suddenly finds itself without a war to fight – something that makes the fact these sections occur on a transport boat, with the Army literally out to sea, out of their element. My grandfather's style is telegraphic. It's unclear for whom these were meant. It is possible he never intended anybody to read them and use these notes simply to jog his own memory. Here's the entry for the day the wider world first heard of the atomic bomb. Normally, he wrote in the past tense, entering several days of events into the notebook during a moment of downtime. In this unusual entry, he was writing down key phrases as events happened.
1755, Thursday, 9 August, Stateroom of the ship's captain, Navy Transport ADMIRAL COONTZ.
We have assembled here at the invitation of the ship's captain to listen to the talk to be given by the President, Mr. Truman.
The news of the past week has been exceedingly favorable as pertains the outcome of the War with Japan.
Truman has begun to speak. He s now talking about his trip to Berlin. He calls it a devastated city.
He now talks about retaining bases necessary for preventing similar devastation to our country w/o acquiring land for imperialism.
He is talking about the sincere desire of the United Nations to avoid war in the future.
He is now leading toward the subject of the war against Japan. Russia's declaration of war . . . . . . .
He is now talking of the "Council of Foreign Ministers" – the meeting ground for nations to prevent future disasters . . . Treatment of Italy and Germany . . . reparations. Poland – this is not too clear, except Russia was given considerable at Poland's expense . . . .
Japan . . warning to surrender unheeded . . . atomic bomb.
The speech is finished. I am back in my compartment.
Here's my grandfather relating the ship's reaction to new that the United States accepted Japan's offer of peace.
0630, Saturday, 11 August, 1945. Aboard AMIRAL COONTZ
Announcement has just come of the amplifier system that United States has accepted Japan's offer of peace. Except for a faint "Hooray" which came from the aft section of the passageway there does not appear to be much excitement. I believe, perhaps, that is because everybody felt that the war was over.
I was reading Ludwig's Napoleon, waiting for breakfast, when the announcement came. I felt very little emotion. Why? Shouldn't I be happier?
The announcement of breakfast has just been made.
Yesterday morning at 0330 Maj KEATON came into our stateroom to advise us that Japan had sued for peace. That announcement seemed to have caused much more excitement than the one this morning.
The book he's reading is Emil Ludwig's 1926 biography of Napoleon. Aside from its daunting length – over 700 pages – it is also noted for its unusual use of the present tense and novelistic techniques. Later in life, my grandfather would calm himself by mediating on the facts of Napoleon's life. You can the evidence of this in other notebooks, on scraps of paper, and on envelopes he kept. He'd just clear his mind and focus on creating fragmentary timeline's of Napoleon's life. Apparently the book he was reading when Japan surrendered stayed with him the rest of his life.
Here's a grimmer entry:
1015, Sunday, 9 Sept 1945, Aboard AMIRAL COONTZ, anchored at ULITHI ATOLL
Last notes were written 5 Sept 45.
We have been sitting here at ULITHI twelve days. We have been aboard the ship 50 days.
Conditions aboard ship are becoming worse daily and I am concerned that they will cause serious trouble. The combination of white troops, colored troops and nurses; hot weather; length of time aboard the ship; large number of men with high point score eligible for discharge, lack of discipline and inefficiency among crew (especially among officers) all add up to an explosive combination.
Thursday I went to the Port Directors Office (ASOR) to obtain information on when we might leave. No information was available there on our expected departure date. Although information was available that the AINSWORTH would leave Friday. (The AINSWORTH started Friday, but was ordered back and left Saturday afternoon.)
Friday morning, in company of Cmdr Southwell, I reported in person to Capt TAWES that I was concerned abut conditions aboard ship. I stated that we wuld have serious trouble if we do not move soon and suggested that a message be sent recommending that this ship be dispatched to its destination without further delay. He was not favorably inclined and we agreed that if instructions did not arrive by Monday we would report to Port Director to obtain advise on action to take.
This is the sort of thing that forcasts more serious trouble:
a Brig is full
b Friday a white soldier threatened to "beat up" an officer
c Last night a white lieutenant made a "pass" at Capt Harris (colored) and pulled a .45 on Lt Rowe (colored)
d Last night four colored sailors tried to beat up white MP who started to chase them out of the nurses area.
Song title: Son Volt's Ten Second News
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